The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons recently released their report, ‘The future of UK music festivals’. The report’s official recommendations describe the necessity of the legal recognition and expansion of drug-checking services, outlining several positive key steps toward the development of a “dedicated legal framework for drug checking services” via “regulations under section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that allow organisations conducting drug checking to operate lawfully”.  

With restrictions on socialising and festivals in the UK due to be lifted on June 21, the report stresses the unique and unprecedented dangers of the coming festival season: Aggravating circumstances facilitated by COVID, including lower tolerance among people who use drugs, limited analysis of drugs in circulation by MAST (Multi Agency Safety Testing), a predicted increase in risk-taking behaviour, and job losses among those with expertise in dealing with people who have used drugs, all amplify risks to festival-goers (of which over half will use drugs recreationally). 

The report heavily features the perspectives of Professor Fiona Measham, Director at The Loop and Chair of Criminology at the University of Liverpool. The Loop has provided drug checking services and pivotally a ‘Brief Intervention’ providing tailored harm reduction advice and signposting to further support for any drug-related problems the participant may have at nightclubs and music festivals across the UK since 2013, operating largely under a murky legal basis; Technically illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and sanctioned only by local police forces, organisations like The Loop lack legal clarity and operate on a case-by-case basis. Now more than ever, Professor Measham calls for clear legislative and policy guidance. 

Evidence of The Loop’s efficacy is powerful, where since 2016 “there have been no drug-related deaths at any festival that MAST has operated at and some evidence of reduced hospital admissions”, and around half of those who are informed that the substances they have submitted to be tested were not what they expected voluntarily hand over the drugs to be disposed of. Despite this, Assistant Chief Constable Justin Bibby and Deputy Chief Constable Jason Harwin in the DCMS report argue that there is insufficient evidence to confidently create legal pathways to drug checking services through policy reform. Without government-backed trials of the services, however, this may be difficult to attain. We can only look to international examples, where overwhelmingly positive precedent has been set: 

The Netherlands’ Drugs Information Monitoring System (DIMS) is one of the oldest drug-checking services in the world, serving tens of thousands of potential drug users annually and having conducted tens of effective mass-media warning campaigns to alert potential users of notably dangerous drugs circulating the market. The Swiss National Strategy on Addiction too has published over 1,600 online alerts of extra dangerous drugs in circulation since 2012. 

An Australian pill-testing trial at music festival Groovin the Moo in 2019 identified seven cases of highly dangerous substances that had been linked to several overdoses worldwide, with all seven participants choosing to discard their potentially deadly pills. 

Drug checking has been legal in New Zealand since December 2020, and subsequent services at recent festivals have reported as much as “half of substances sold as MDMA” were tested to be another substance, typically cathinone or butylone which can carry risks distinct from those of MDMA.

In the UK, political support for drug checking is growing: the recommendation is backed with cross-party support, with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Drug Policy Reform, co-chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt and Labour MP Jeff Smith, and an influential bloc of 16 Labour MP’s  all having officially endorsed drug-checking services at festivals. 

The report’s recommendations could be the catalyst for a government-backed initiative, with the Home Office having licensed drug testing just once in 2019. Of course, any such move would likely be met with resistance from socially conservative MPs but the all-too-familiar festival deaths and rising potency in ecstacy tablets make a compelling case for concrete change.

Professor Measham is buoyed by the news, telling Volteface “We know that drug checking can make a difference. The Loop is ready to test. We have teams of chemists, health professionals and researchers, and a fully operational mobile laboratory ready to deploy. However, we want service users as well as staff, to have legal clarity and protection from prosecution when using our service. We look forward to the UK Government implementing these recommendations and are keen to work together to prevent drug-related deaths.”

With festival season due to swing into action – could we be on the cusp of major advancements for drug checking?

This piece was written by Issy Ross, Content Officer at Volteface.

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